Six Things

Quick! Name 6 things we take for granted, but without which our world would be quite different! Read all about it here.

I’ve been racing through a great read: How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson. He describes 6 innovations that shaped our world. I wish I had a job writing about stuff like that! Making connections from hither and yon. It reminds me of the series “Connections,” with James Burke, on TV long ago. (Johnson’s stories are also from a series: on PBS.)

Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342
Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342

The first chapter is about glass. It’s impact in everything from windows to lenses, to fiber optics. The writing is loaded with fascinating facts. Johnson proposes that while Gutenberg’s printing press made books available to the populace at large (making them affordable, both to buy and to print), it was lenses that made it possible for the majority of people to read. Up until then, with more than half the population far-sighted, it would not have been practical to buy a book and bring it home and read it. This assumes one had already gone to the trouble of learning to read, which was not taught in schools, there being no public schools in the sixteenth centuries!

One aspect of glass that Johnson glosses over (pardon the weak attempt at a pun), is how glass made possible windows. Not windows in homes, which he does describe. But windows in vehicles.

I propose that, although the steam engine and the internal combustion engine made possible long distance travel, none of that would have gone far (okay, a better pun) without glass for windows. One can make a powerful engine, a vehicle, even a carriage way (for trains and then cars). But without windows one would be limited to about 20 miles per hour. Beyond that, the force of wind – and inclement weather – would have made piloting the vehicle impossible. And what about air travel? I suppose one could have an aircraft with a periscope.

There would have been no need for an interstate highway system. No aircraft industry. No long distance vacation travel, except for the wealthy.

It’s fun to contemplate such a world. Maybe a good plot line for a sci-fi novel. Or on a world not made with a silica crust.

So, the next time you look out the car window at the rain pouring down, think about the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Confused? Read the book.

P.S. I noticed this on YouTube (of course): World without Glass. Hah!

P.P.S. Johnson writes that glass making would not have been possible without 1,000 degree furnaces. Those would not have been possible without ceramic bricks. From whence did furnaces evolve? Although no one knows, it may have been from ceramic glazing or metalworking.

Complexity or Chaos?

Are the challenges we engage to solve becoming too complex for our current methodologies? I believe that, in the last 50 years, we have lost sight of the exponential relationship between “problem complexity” and “problem management”.

I got to thinking about this once again while reading this intriguing article in The Atlantic: ‘Trust in Government is Collapsing Around the World‘. (Thanks to my well-educated friend, Ari, for pointing me to it.) Thinking in terms of “definition of experiments”, the number of independent variables is expanding like crazy, and the standard deviation in each variable is also increasing: bigger variety of people, more sub-cultures with power, higher expectations of government, etc.

Take a look at modern computing devices. Within this class I would include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. They contain a powerful computing engine, plenty of memory and storage, access to the world of information we call the Internet, and claim to provide a platform on which any number of challenges can be addressed. Manage your money? No problem. Write anything from a note for the fridge to a doctoral thesis to a novel? No problem. Digest news feeds to something palatable for each user? Again, no problem.

But I would suggest that the software world has delegated the actual solving of the problem to the users, not the computer and its software. A word processor can do many things, but to do it bug-free requires legions of users writing in about this-and-that problem they encounter. Fix the problems one-by-one, and you end up with a solution to the problem. Wait! Haven’t we moved the problem from “how to write a manuscript on paper with pencil and then use a typewriter” to “how to diagnose or live with bugs when you want to get fancy”? Why not test the software and find all the bugs before it leaves the factory? That takes a different type of resolve, and using experts to create the final system, not the user community.

Uri Friedman writes ““we may not know how to architect trusted institutions at scale in public space,” quoting a former Department of Homeland Security official. She continues, “Our institutions—their weight-bearing effectiveness for social problems of enormous complexity is being called into question now across the board.”

The ‘public space’ has scaled dramatically with the shift to social media and away from ‘juried’ publications. Yet people are reading less. But why put these institutions in the public space at all? Apparently trusting direct democracy is not a new issue: according to Wikipedia, it was an issue for the Founding Fathers. Are we going to put “beta social policy” into the public sphere, and let the users find the bugs?

(I’m beginning to see S.T.E.M. efforts evolving to S.T.E.A.M. – including the arts and history. I predict this will be a “pendulum swing” like the one in 1958, when Sputnik caused American politicians to direct more effort to science and math. When the competitive crisis had passed, we went back to social studies.)

This article could go on and on. Parting thought: I wonder when our political and cultural system will begin to look a lot like ancient Athens? A ‘direct democracy’, as we learned in school, but it ignores the castes of slaves and non-citizens. (See Wikipedia article, paragraph #2.) I wonder how ‘direct democracy’ has changed in Vermont’s “town meetings” in recent decades.

Democracy: it’s still better than the alternatives!

Who’s Next? Bavaria?

Brexit. Grexit. Scotland? Greater Ireland? Cataloni-out-a-there? Siciliaderci? Bavaria-bientot?

OK, puns aside, where will it end?
And what if it migrates across the Atlantic?

Maybe the very word ‘Union’ has become so distasteful in our individualist cultures that we can’t abide sticking together. Does the good of them any outweigh the good of the one anymore at all?

I’m trying to think of a historical case when an ’empire’ (if you’ll allow the over-simplification of the Europe Union case) was split into pieces and remained stable or prosperous or even independent for long. Let me ruminate on this one a bit, and I’ll get back to you.

Right now I’ve got to plan my vacations to several new ‘countries’!